Written evidence from Manchester City Council (FLM 43)

 

Executive Summary:

 

Manchester City Council welcomes this opportunity to respond to this inquiry and would be prepared to make representations personally to the committee. The nominated spokesperson for Manchester City Council would be Cllr Jim Battle, Deputy Leader, who would be available to comment further on these issues.

 

Manchester City Council values the contribution that the local media can make to the wellbeing of its community. The Council is calling for a review of legislation and guidance to enable local authority support for independent local media where this will contribute to the economic or social well being of their communities.

 

1. 0 The impact on local media of recent and future developments in digital convergence, media technology and changing consumer behaviour;

 

1.1 Trends are very difficult to demonstrate given the current recession, and it depends what is defined as local media. Manchester local media has suffered some structural decline from advertising displacement to 'new media' although print and radio seemed to have adapted better to this shift.

 

1.2 Web advertising opportunities that have been generated by local media could be better capitalising on the revenue potential. Often online media is used as part of the negotiation for press advertising and is an add on that sometimes devalues this channel.

 

1.3 It would be fair to conclude that digital developments have lead to slight dissection of media budgets in Manchester.

 

2.0 The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information;

 

2.1 The impact of local newspaper closures would be harmful for Manchester across many dimensions. Job cuts have already happened in local papers with a centralisation approach to the news management effecting the South Manchester Report and New East Manchester Advertiser and resulting in pressures on the Manchester Evening News. In total the MEN group axed 150 jobs across their papers and 41 jobs from Channel M and two local shop units/ offices have been vacated in North and South Manchester, as well as across the region with a centralised approached in total 8 locations across Greater Manchester have been closed. The job threat for the MEN group is a further 150 - 200 jobs in the MEN, Channel M and related services.

 

2.2 Job losses are not the only impact. Local journalism at ward level will be affected as journalists are no longer specialist but generalists across bigger geographical areas and are not located within the heart of the local catchment areas affecting the 'local voice' and representation of local people.

 

2.3 Manchester local papers have also been reduced in size with less pages and less local content in the pagination again effecting the opportunity for local representation.

 

2.4 If the local papers were to close altogether then the impact for residents on local information and the knock on impact on neighbourliness would be dramatic. . The media have helped communicate and inform residents in regeneration areas of the progress being made, supported the stimulation of the housing market and helped to generate a sense of community . The local way of life, local issues, what is happening in their area, local celebration and up coming events would be lost. This could impact what places and spaces could mean for communities and affect quality of life in their area. The importance of local media in promoting awareness and debate about local issues is critical to daily and weekly newspapers. This has become recently an increasing significant matter given the need for balance and informed coverage in light of the existence of heightened extreme political activity.

2.5 As a City Council we value the effectiveness of local media and if this element of marketing collateral was no longer there we would have to consider using alternative mediums, including possibly more expensive tools to deliver messages. We receive over 15,000 mentions in local media in relation to PR activity, a very cost effective tool to disseminate information. Without this outlet messages would have to be issued via outdoor advertising, leaflets or direct mail resulting in more costly options and with less editorial weight.

 

3. How to fund quality local journalism;

 

3.1 Local journalism / local papers have been affected by structural change and an economic down turn with reduced advertising revenues. Costs of production have also increased squeezing margins. Some of the structural change will continue e.g. motors and recruitment to online mediums but other sectors can remain robust as the economy recovers. However, decline is likely to continue long term hence efficiencies and reviewed practices are needed.

 

3.2 Local authorities may wish to consider supporting local journalism/media using their powers under Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 (LGA 2000) to do anything which they consider is likely to promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well being of their area e.g. financial assistance to safeguard employment and/or ensure the availability of information to the local community or promote democracy. However, local authorities cannot rely on this power to do anything which they are prohibited from doing by any other legislation. Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986 (LGA 1986) prohibits local authorities from publishing material which in whole or in part appears designed to affect public support for a particular political party and from giving financial or other assistance to another person for such publication. We are concerned that the provision may be interpreted in such a way as to prevent local authorities from giving assistance for non political purposes to the local press or media where the aim is to promote the economic or social well being of the area. However committed the local press is to balanced reporting, it could often be considered to be in breach of the strict test in Section 2 as the local press frequently publish material which in whole or in part appears designed to affect public support for a particular party when they publish the views of a party or politicians in relation to an issue, letters and opinion columns. We believe that there should be an exemption from the provisions in Section 2 LGA 1986 for assistance for the press, other media and publishers for particular purposes such as those under Section 2 of the LGA 2000 subject to suitable safeguards to maintain freedom of editorial control. This could be achieved by way of amendment to Section 2 of the LGA 1986 or by way of an order under Section 5 of the LGA 2000. This would allow appropriate investment to be made and partnership agreements to be developed without undermining media independence.

 

3.3 The City Council has already made representations in this respect in its response to the Consultation on the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Government Publicity to CLG. It is also recognised that any assistance to local press must be state aid compliant.

 

4. The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level;

 

4.1 There are some gaps in the local market at present - the local weekly papers do not go to all households in Manchester, they cover about 50%.

 

4.2 As a result Manchester City Council publishes one print mechanic, a quarterly newspaper (Manchester People) which is distributed by hand to all doors in Manchester, to compensate for our current local newspapers who cannot achieve this complete distribution. We also do once a year a Student Manchester People newspaper to welcome our transient population. The aim of these papers is not to utilise them as a cheaper advertising source for legal notices but as an information guide on major initiatives and events that have happened or are happening in Manchester. This is seen as a supplementary not alternative solution to our local press and the editorial weight is obviously lacking. We feel this is appropriate.

 

4.3 We do not think it is appropriate to seek local sponsorship to support local initiatives which would achieve little more but reduce revenues for the rest of industry. Where City Councils have developed a rival weekly newspaper to their local paper in order to avoid obligatory advertising costs this has just further undermined local newspapers, weakening this valuable asset for neighbourhoods.

 

5. The role and effects of search engines and online content aggregators on local media;

 

5.1 The digital age has impacted local media but local media has been in decline for many decades and other changes have also affected local media both on and offline such as free commuting papers (the Metro).

 

5.2 Search engines are a fast and efficient way of gathering information but are not an alternative to a paper however local media needs to adapt to ensure a news appetite can be fulfilled in the online space. The immediacy of online tools does appeal to society's appetite for breaking news and the latest information and as citizen journalism grows the more involved online participants can become. However, the integrity of journalism such as general accuracy to the extreme of slander is less marshalled in the digital environments and a concern for public bodies.

 

5.3 Manchester City Council feels its local media adapted, maybe a little slowly, to the digital move but has a credible brand and an opportunity to develop its online offer and we are investigating ways to work together to achieve more.

 

6. The future of local radio and television news;

 

6.1 Local radio seems to be fairing well in the challenging and changing media environment and in the Manchester region has a segmented approach matching audience type to content and has seen new stations enter the airways (Manchester Xfm). Again the recession will have impact on advertising revenues but so far not to the detriment of jobs or so as to result in closures. However, local community radios can be restricted and impinged due to the complication of applying for a licence. The likes of All fm and Wythenshawe fm are plugging communities issues in a very accessible way that meets their residents' needs.

 

6.2 Television news for the region has seen more impact with job losses at Granada and Channel M. Again rationalisation has been required with the decrease of advertising revenues.

 

7. The desirability of changes to the regulatory framework for print and electronic local media, including cross-media ownership and merger regulations;

 

7.1 Manchester City Council would welcome deregulation on two counts. Firstly the opportunity for cross media ownership and the potential for merger deals to maximise efficiencies.

 

8. The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with local media;

 

8.1 Partnerships with the BBC need to be seen in the context of commissioning and the regulatory framework as it will impact upon ITV and in particularly their regional obligations. The demise of regional news as budgets have been cut and redundancies are apparent in TV as they are in print.

 

The recently published Digital Britain Report recognises that the costs of ITV's public service licences exceed the benefits and action needs to be taken to bring the two in line. The current cost of ITV's regional news services in England, the Borders and Wales is around 55m per annum.

 

Regional news is ITV's greatest PSB cost and is unsustainable in its current form.

 

Options - Partnership with the BBC

 

At the suggestion of the Government, the BBC and ITV spent several months discussing potential ways in which the two broadcasters could work together in a partnership aimed at securing a long term future for regional news on ITV1 by reducing costs.

 

After months of negotiation, the savings to ITV translated into 1.5m in 2011 rising incrementally to around 7m by 2016. This is not sufficient to keep ITV regional news on air.

 

Furthermore, if the partnership is to go ahead, ITV would either have to move its main regional news bulletins out of peak time, or pre-record them. Either proposal would pose a risk to the quality of the ITV regional news service.

 

We are therefore pleased that the Government's Digital Britain Review endorses Ofcom's proposal for the sustainable provision of plurality in nations and regions news. This would entail using a small proportion of the licence fee paid to independent producers of regional news with ITV providing the slots in its schedule.

 

While the BBC opposes these, its alternative partnership proposal has yet to deliver sufficient value to sustain a viable regional news service on ITV1.

 

9. The extent of plurality required in local media markets;

 

9.1 Choice is important and the digital age is supporting a plethora of media platforms to gather information. There is also a need for rationalisation and occasionally that process consolidates choice in order to survive.

 

10. Incentives for investment in local content;

 

10.1 Manchester City Council would welcome the opportunity to invest and investment support for local content and drive some of the key attributes of our community strategy and ensure our residents and businesses felt informed. However, we consider that the S2 LGA1986 needs to be addressed as referred to in paragraph 3 of this submission.

 

10.2 Neighbourliness, social inclusion, and the promotion of Manchester's multicultural place are integral to our Community Strategy and indeed government policy. Local media allows us to demonstrate our inspiring people, the opportunities, promote a greater sense of participation and well-being. Regeneration programmes hinge on providing places where social inclusion is strengthened, crime and disorder reduced and local newspapers help turn deprived areas around by developing communities and neighbourhoods where people choose to live. This would be made much harder to implement without local media.

 

10.3 A city of successful neighbourhoods which attract and retain successful people from diverse communities where people are supported and feel secure is a story worth telling and local media play a role in binding our people and place together.

 

11. Opportunities for "ultra-local" media services.

 

11.1At present we speak to residents via ward newsletters to provide this 'ultra

local' information and there is a void at this level online or via a media service and we feel this could be beneficial.

 

12. Additional points.

 

12.1 Manchester City Council would like to see support to plug gaps in local media as not all our population gets access to a weekly newspaper that engages them with their community.

 

August 2009